"Can We Talk?" the Jewish Jesus in a Dialogue between Jews and Christians

Article excerpt

"That Jesus was a Jew during the troubled Roman oppression in Palestine is a fact. That his "messiahship" remains a fundamental stumbling block between Jews and Christians and has been so for 2,000 years is fact. Can Jews somehow import him into Jewish thinking and open doors to conversations with Christians? Can Christians somehow revisit their thinking about him in ways that will open doors to conversations with Jews? Is there truly anything new we can say to each other in this twenty-first century about Jesus the Jew? Is there any hope of any present and future dialogue whatsoever without this conversation? This paper is a "preliminary" attempt to explore these and other questions in a dialogical context.

". . . truth must be distinguished from fiction and agendas (ecclesiastical, conspiratorial, feminist), realized or fantasized."

Zev Garber,"Refleetions on Jesus," Shofar 27.2 (Winter 2009), p. 129

"Scholars not only need to recognize that they view Jesus through their own particular set of eyes but also to be on guard for how their interpretations might be (mis)perceivedby others."

Gary Gilbert, Review of Brian LeBeau, et. al., The Historical Jesus through Catholic and Jewish Eyes, Review of Biblical Literature online, 2002.

Introduction: A Vignette

In my previous career as a full-time congregational rabbi and part-time academic (what I now tell my students was my "second incarnation," my first being that of a high school teacher of English literature), I used to have any number of church groups (men's clubs, ladies guilds, youth groups, etc.) visit and sit in our sanctuary during an afternoon or early evening for an "Everything you always wanted to know about Judaism but never got around to asking" talk, with plenty of time left for questions and answers, and sometimes the "Q & A" lasted more than the original presentation. I distinctly remember one such visit by a ladies' guild, though I no longer remember the particular Christian denomination, when one of the elderly ladies, quite tiny (or is it now more politically cottect to say "petite"?) summed up the entire visit wirh the statement, "Now after all, Rabbi, isn't Judaism simply that branch of Christianity that doesn't believe in Jesus!?!" (It continues to remain one of my fondest recollections of that part of my career.)

There is no question that "out there" - in the so-called "real world" beyond the academy - the one question asked by genuinely interested Christian religious persons more than any others is, "Why don't you Jews believe in Jesus?" And no matter what or how we choose to answer, the question remains and forms a foundational underpinning to all Jewish-Christian dialogical encounters. (Parenthetically, the Holocaust/Shoah and the State of Israel are equally foundational to all such contemporary dialogues.)

Let me, therefore, tell you how I used to answer that question and use that answet as the base on which to move the dialogue forward. I used to tell my guests:

"We need to draw a distinction hete, for we are talking both history and theology at the same time. If we ate talking history, then the Jesus of the New Testament, our primary source of data, appears to be one born of Jewish parents (Yosef and Miryam) during the period of Roman oppression in Palestine at the turn of the millennium, seems to have had a teasonably good Jewish education, cared enough about his people to travel around both teaching and giving comfort to his fellow Jews who suffered, was arrested by the Roman authorities who saw his ability to attract increasingly larger crowds as potentially dangerous to their ability to maintain theit control, and put him to death as was their way (with the support of a collaborationist Jewish leadership unrepresentative of the people). He was not a'rabbi'in the sense of receiving 5 'micha/ ordination, despite the textual references, and, as a committed Jew and a rabbi, I have no difficulty in regarding him as a welcome teacher among many. …